I'd like to thank "J the intern" for her post on physician depression and suicide on 9/9/14, as it prompted me to read Pranay Sinha's excellent New York Times Op-Ed piece "Why Do Doctors Commit Suicide?" He discusses what may have contributed to two recent intern suicides, namely, the shock of graduating from well-supported medical student to overburdened resident drowning in the macho medical culture. He describes his early intern year as "marked by severe fatigue, numerous clinical errors , a constant and haunting fear of hurting my patients, and an inescapable sense of inadequacy."
Ah, yes. Residency.
In the comments to J the intern's post, OMDG brings up as additional factor to consider: "the elephant in the room... sometimes doctors treat each other like garbage".
Yup, I agree with that one, too. No one is more cruel to the suffering than the suffering. Many of my own emotional injury during training was at the hands of my colleagues. But, I know that I lashed out as well. We all hurt each other. I'd like to expound on that, if I may.
I well remember being humiliated on rounds, Monday-morning quarterbacked by someone fresh and showered. I cringe as I recall snapping at my intern for waking me up to check on a patient she was worried about. I'd been snapped at in a similar way as an intern. I remember with sinking stomach the disdain and sarcasm I received when I tried to teach a medical student a very simple procedure, and then couldn't do it myself. I still get angry when I think about the patients who suffered as my residents tried to teach me paracentesis, central line insertions, lumbar puncture- and failed on their attempts. I know my anger showed then. When our colleagues rotating at a small outside hospital transferred a sick patient to us in the emergency room, and it turned out to be a case of lab error, no pathology, there was derision all-around: "They dropped us a turkey, guys." When I was worried about a sick patient and called for an ICU consult, the ICU resident came, and told me I could handle it. "Don't be a wuss. Be a real doctor."
The cruelty towards women was pervasive. A pregnant resident had an early miscarriage. Still bleeding, she asked to be excused from her outpatient clinic. The chief, a woman, said no. "Just think of it like your period," she said.
A colleague went out on maternity leave six weeks early, for premature labor. Another resident was pulled from an outpatient elective to cover the rest of her rotation on the floors. The resident who was pulled was very resentful, angry to tears. "Why the f-- would anyone want to have a baby during residency? Why?" Another answered, "I'll never understand it. It's so selfish."
It's well-known that medical training erodes empathy. It took years for me to recover from residency, to feel like I could even begin to take care of people again. Literally. I did a research fellowship for three years, in large part because I couldn't imagine returning to clinical practice.
But, why did I feel this way, when my residency program was well- regarded, with many opportunities to share, reflect, even write? Why were so many of us injured and angered by our experience? So many of us recall their training with a shudder, vowing "I wouldn't revisit those years for all the money in the world."
That's just not right. How can we change it?
Open discussions confronting the cruelty of medical training may help. As a medical student, I was rotating on surgery. A rural hospital transferred a very sick patient to us, someone who had been misdiagnosed and suffered greatly. As the case was reported on rounds, there was loud derision and disgust expressed towards the rural docs. But one senior surgeon, someone so intimidating and revered that just a movement of his hand silenced the crowd, quietly admonished:
"There's no point in criticizing. Your fellow physician took the same oath you did. Assume that they tried, and that they feel terribly. We have all made mistakes, and we will all make many more. Don't waste your time on judgment."
End of that discussion, and it made an impression on me. Don't waste your time on judgment. I think, as teachers, we need to stand up and say that, and live that. Be real doctors.
We also need to dismantle that confusing paradigm of training: You are here to learn, but you should already know how to do it. Sinha also illustrates this in his essay. You were a coddled student in June, and then the doctor in July. You feel like you're supposed to know it all, because everyone is acting like they do know it all. Everyone's got a front. To ask for help is to be weak.
I remember very early in training, asking how, exactly, to write a prescription. I'd never written one before.
Oh, the rolling of eyes, the quick snappish explanation. I was so upset, I didn't catch it all. I spied on other people writing prescriptions and copied them. Seriously, how the heck are you supposed to know how to write a prescription if no one's really taught you?
How are you supposed to know how to be a doctor, if no one's really taught you?
I'm interested to hear what others' experiences have been, good and bad, with an eye towards practical suggestions. How do you think medical training be reformed?